Kate lent against the wall and took a breath hoping that Shane or Stephen or whatever the hell his name was had got the message and would not turn up to the store. She needed this casual position to pay off some extra debt she had accumulated now that she was newly single and holidaying back home with her mother. Only, it was becoming clear to Kate that this job and Christmas, along with her recent break-up... ALL of it ... was wearing her down physically and mentally. Every day the plastic Christmas tree in its fake pot was feeling heavier, not to mention she'd nearly dug her eyes out with its spindly branches trying to heave it out from around the store front every evening. By the time she'd dragged it all the way through the shop to the store cupboard, the bling had brushed off either onto herself or fallen down onto the floor. This meant Kate had to sweep up the Christmas glitter daily and with all its baubles gone awry, once finally outside ready for a buy Christmas day's trading, the tree always needed redecorating.

"It must be locked away!" The wrinkly Manager came in to check on Kate's sales targets when she least expected it and was always on her back. "You'd be surprised what people will steal..." Wandering around the store seeing if sold items have been replenished and that the floor was clean, gnarled fingers running along the shelves to check for dust and on ... and on ... and on... "I've been working in retail for years, my dear. You'd be surprised what people will steal. They'd even steal the toilet rolls from the lavatory given half a chance."

And so, every single day for the last two months Kate Donaldson had dragged the tree out and then right on 5pm she'd shoved it back into its store place with a silent good riddance under her breath. Seeing that her hours were 9am till 5pm... part of her job... well... ALL of her job as far as Kate was concerned, involved checking her watch. Her watch, or the huge black and white clock up on the wall. Sometimes Kate found herself drifting off. Leaning over the counter and staring at the black second hand going around in circles and doing its job. Nodding off around the sparkly counters for hours in a daze. But as 5pm approached, a different feeling took over. One of excitement and trepidation. She'd survived another eight hours in the shop. She had smiled at rude people and spoken politely when everything inside her wanted to scream F$%*K OFF! She had been patient with scolding mothers who shamelessly lugged their babies around imprisoned in hot prams. And so, every afternoon at 5 o'clock Kate silently congratulated herself. Charging to the stereo to turn off those Christmas tunes on repeat that were doing her head in and rushing for her bag for a quick exit. Yanking the plastic tree across the linoleum floor through to the back of the shop and shoving it into its store place, before pulling the concertina doors together so hard that they almost smashed. Only then, could she finally run to her dilapidated vehichle as fast as her legs would carry her.

Kate had timed this closing routine of the store down to the exact second by her watch. The whole experience, after balancing the till which for Kate never balanced, too at least an hour and Kate had to remember that she was not getting paid any overtime. "You are only a casual, my dear. We never pay casuals overtime." Right! So, if the till was balanced or unbalanced, lights on or off, Christmas tree half in or out of the store, Kate made a pact to herself while smiling at the wrinkly lady.

I leave this Christmas hell house every day bang on the dot of 5 o'clock!


"Hi there..." The weird guy had startled her so much that her breath had caught up in her mouth. And the way he looked at her, there was something about the man that to Kate didn't add up. "I bought you these." Kate glanced at her watch and noted that it was 4.30pm. She'd already lost her place twice on the store calculator she used to balance the day's takings and if she heard 'Silent Night' even one more time she might vomit.

"I... sorry. I... I can't accept these flowers..." Kate felt the burn in her cheeks. The 'flowers' looked more like wilted weeds and there was an awkward silence as she sought for words. Words... that would be polite for...? What was this weirdo's name? But also, at the same time words that would be discouraging.

"I already have a boyfriend." Ah, Kate was proud of herself. That one would put the lunatic in his place.

However, the odd man did nothing. Only stood there behind the counter with a blank stare. A stare which suddenly for some reason seemed to peirce right through her.

"Um... Look you'll have to excuse me I'm closing the store now." Busy. Yes, busy was good, she told herself. Grabbing the key from the cash register and rummaging through bits of paper she'd used for another unsuccessful balance. "So... um... " Looking up at him with a brief unaffected smile. Oh, it was surprising to Kate as she handled herself in this slightly desperate situation how clever she'd become with her fake retail mannerisms. And all of it only in a couple of months. "Ah... I suppose I can walk you out." Kate still had the store key that was attached to a block of wood and looping it over her head, she hurriedly made her way to the half closed concertina doors in front of them.

That's when it happened...

And every detail of the next few minutes was frozen in her memory. She remembered the track 'I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas' was playing... again! She remembered it particularly because the tune made absolutely no sense to Kate Donaldson living in Australia where the festive season was always so hot. She'd also glanced over at the lady closing the handbag store across from her and Kate remembered that she had smiled. Why, she wondered later, did she smile? It was a moment that might have changed things, however, she did not and instead something small and hard jabbed into the middle of her back.

"That's right. I have a gun. And if you do exactly as I say you'll be alright."

It's amazing how the mind works. Even with the weapon digging at her back, Kate's mind whirled with a multitude of options.


Play it cool!

Was the biggest voice that won her over. So, instead of screaming as she wanted to, she allowed her tense body to relax.

I must stay where people can see me, she told herself. I must keep him right where he is and not allow him to drag me back into the shop.

And so...

"I'm sorry..." Kate made her voice sound as calm and as positive as she was able. "I ... I seem to have forgotten your name."

"Stephen!" He threw back at her with a prod of the gun.

"Yes, of course, Stephen. Look, Stephen, we seem to have got off on the wrong foot. I have plenty of time this evening and if you'd like... well ... I need you to help me with something." After saying this, Kate could not feel the gun trained at her back, although she was turned away from him. "See, when I close the store I need to bring the Christmas tree back in. And... it's so heavy..."

"Do you need me to help you?" The peculiar man's voice had changed in an instant and had gone up with excitement by at least an octave.

"Yeh" Kate turned quickly to face him. There was no sign of a weapon. Only his face all lit up like an innocent child.

"I never ever had a Christmas tree." Kate heard the man say this quietly as he walked around and touched it's plastic branches. "No family. Got no money. Christmas only rips at my insides and feels painful. Until you..."

When she saw him gaze at her with longing, Kate almost felt sorry for the mentally challenged man. But, she was not going to let him distract her. So, while Stephen the weird guy played with the tree's baubles in awe and amazement, she made a run for it back into the shop and banged on the red emergency button to alert the shopping mall's central security.

Within seconds the men in black surrounded the tree with weapons drawn. They confiscated the mental guy's gun and had him laying down on the floor and then they cuffed him.

"What were you going to do if you hadn't been able to sound that alarm?" It was Kate's mother who had shown up at the scene promptly at 5.10pm.

"Well..." Kate had a few things in mind. Like the key around her neck attached to its block of wood. Or screaming out randomly for someone to help her. Instead, she distracted her mother by asking her why she had known to come over so quickly to the store?

"These days I can set my watch by you. Since you've been staying with me and working at the mall, you're always home by 5.05pm sharp. And in the last two months you have never missed an episode of 'The Price is Right." With the sound of her tedious life from her mother's lips, Kate Donaldson knew that she was finished with the Christmas store from hell and that evening she would be handing in her resignation. Besides, it would be like an early Christmas gift. She'd never have to balance a cash register again!

However, that evening as she shared a warm tea with her mother, their own Christmas tree lit and a swath of beautifully wrapped presents beneath, Kate Donaldson was only grateful. Grateful for all that she had and she promised herself that from then on she would always smile, a true smile, to the frazzled Christmas retail staff. She also let her mother know that it was time to stop feeling sorry for herself and that she had to move on. Kate would moving to Melbourne to stay with her father. It was never more clear to her that a girl must rely on herself. She would not let herself end up like Stephen. It was time to finish her Psychology Studies.

November 24, 2022 04:38

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Sharon Catlett
21:38 Dec 03, 2022

Well paced story, really liked the picture you painted of Kate and the drudgery. Liked the hint of Stephen at the beginning and the surprise of him being a threat later. You could have gone dark but kept the sad tone instead which allowed me to enjoy Kate's empathy for the guy and her optimistic change. Nicely done!


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Wendy Kaminski
04:22 Nov 29, 2022

Excellent quick-thinking on the part of the heroine! Very nice and empowering touch!


Kerri-lyn Bryant
07:22 Nov 29, 2022

Thank you. Strange when I re-read my story it becomes obvious to me that one day I'll definitely be on the hunt for a debut novel Womens Historical Fiction reedsy editor.x


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